Queer Expectationsby Christine Shan Shan Hou
What makes a performance queer? You can define queerness as the subversion of preconceived notions of gender identity, relationships, and lifestyles. You can also think of it as a defiant resistance to the norms that construct and reinforce our positions in society. The concept of “normal,” however, is tricky when considering it in relation to performance. For a moment, you suspend disbelief and normalcy, entering into an alternative world.
Is a performance considered queer because the artist identifies as queer? Is that enough? I can walk myself into a corner when discussing the politics of queer theory.
I’ll stop here.
The first-ever Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYI) took place over nine days in June across several locations in New York City with the Abrons Arts Center as its primary hub. According to curators Zvonimir Dobrović and André von Ah, the festival brings together U.S. and international artists to create “a new concept of queer as a wider platform for excellence in arts…while daring to speak openly about the norms that constitute society and art practice.” What this means, I am not entirely sure, but I hesitate to attribute much to the curatorial preface.
In Igor Josifov’s performance-installation 2-Dimensional, the Macedonian artist, dressed in a handsome suit, lays still in a wooden box—a coffin of sorts—with a thick sheet of Plexiglas neatly fitted on top. Viewers are invited to walk over him like a bridge in the front lobby of the Abrons.
I walk over Josifov twice. When I make eye contact with him, he stares back with dark and intense eyes. The result is underwhelming, and I have no desire to further interact with him.
The problem with 2-Dimensional is simply that…it is two-dimensional.
This performance by Josifov takes place on the same evening as Silvia Costa’s La Quiescenza del seme (Italian for “The retirement of the seed”). The roughly 30-minute solo finds Costa suspended in a tank of clear liquid. (A description of the performance claims she will be performing in milk, but that’s not entirely clear in the performance.) Before entering the theater, one of the curators tells us the performance has been modified because the original aquarium did not make it through customs.
Costa slowly swishes back and forth in what appears to be water. Her fingers and buttocks sweep across the bottom of the tank riling up a powdery substance and churning the water into a milky white. Lorenzo Tomio’s music and lighting are essential to setting the tone of the piece, effectively swallowing Costa in her tiny tank. Tomio creates low synthesized rumbles and what sounds like slow-turning mechanical cogs. The dark atmosphere conjures the sci-fi aesthetic from the heyday of cyberpunk.
Costa, her back toward us, extends her left hand like a mangled claw and trembles her fingers. At the end of the piece, the water becomes a murky black. A spotlight shines straight on the front of the tank. She begins to press various parts of her body against the glass creating minimal abstract shapes: a luminescent white arm, the individual vertebrae of her spinal cord, a single butt cheek glows like a full moon. In the final scene, she presses a side of her face against the glass, I’m reminded of the album cover of Tori Amos’s From the Choirgirl Hotel.
What’s queer about milk? What’s queer about walking over a man lying beneath a sheet of Plexiglas? What’s queer about this? What’s queer about that? Milk is not particularly queer.
Another soloist in the festival is Marlene Monteiro Freitas. In Guintche, the well-sculpted Freitas shakes her hips tirelessly for about 20 minutes while wearing bootie shorts and a transparent red blouse, a purpled feather boa wrapped around her hips. Her huge eyes bulge out of her head as she spastically contorts her face like a wild schizophrenic. She is wearing large wax lips over her mouth and batting her eyelashes. She drools all over herself like a rabid animal. Her sweaty hands peck at her head, pulling out a chunk of hair. There are two large black circles, one painted on the palm of each hand. She holds them up to her eyes “blinks” her antennae-like fingers like a deranged bug.
Guintche, like La Quiescenza del seme, relies too much on a limited movement vocabulary. Whereas the dimensions of the milk aquarium confined Costa, Freitas could not expand beyond her ferocious belly dancing moves and exaggerated facial expressions. The resulting piece, although physically impressive, feels like a flat character sketch. If Guintche is based on a drawing by Freitas that “grew in her imagination over time,” the evolution is still in its early stages.
A friend of mine points out that there are no trans bodies in the festival, which seems odd for a festival that calls itself queer. But should I be so caught up with semantics? Do the title and framework of the festival set up higher expectations?
Freitas made her U.S. debut in Trajal Harrell’s (M)imosa last year alongside dancer-choreographers François Chaignaud (from France) and Cecilia Bengolea (from Argentina), who also appeared at QNYI. Their work Pâquerette, the closing performance of the festival, is also its high point. Set at the Invisible Dog Art Center, a marvelous industrial space in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, Pâquerette (or “Daisy”) is a memorable duet that reflects on “the denial of the anus in dance.”
Upon entering the upstairs theater, we see Chaignaud and Bengolea sitting on the floor in gauche garments that look like large-sleeved blankets with open backs. Bengolea’s garment is a royal blue with fancy gold embroidery across her chest, while Chaignaud’s dress is a pale gold. They sit next to each other with their knees turned out to the side and look out curiously at the audience. Their facial expressions morph from frustration to happiness, from extreme pleasure to extreme boredom. They are thinking their own thoughts…as am I.
Slow moans emerge from their mouths that sound like a mix of orgasmic pleasure and constipation. Chaignaud eerily flutters his pupils backwards showing only the whites of his eyes. Both continue to emit painful groans while their bodies melt away from each other and painstakingly slither around the floor, as if experiencing some kind of slow death.
Their bodies awkwardly try to fit together but continuously fail in a sort of demented sexual foreplay (Lars von Trier’s 1998 film The Idiots comes to mind). In a particularly engaging section, Chaignaud lies on his back with his legs in the air. His feet act as a support for Bengolea’s lower back—she is arched backwards in an awkward wheel-like formation. They fumble around as Bengolea tries to steady herself like an unwieldy sculpture atop a wobbly pedestal.
The garments eventually come off and you see the source of their ecstatic pain (or painful ecstasy): dildos are penetrating their anuses.
The dildos may be the most memorable part of Pâquerette, but the most intriguing is how Chaignaud and Bengolea use their bodies as a means to construct their own movement lexicon. It’s as if they know their bodies will never fit together in the way they want them to, yet they continue to try anyway, embracing the slips and failures of their attempts.
And when the butt dildos come out, QNYI is over. It’s time to go home.
About the Author
CHRISTINE SHAN SHAN HOU is a poet, artist, and writer living in Brooklyn.